2017 in review

What we’ve learned: 5 lessons from education research to take into 2018

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

Education research comes out faster than most of us can keep up with — and staying up to date gets even harder when advocates on every side claim that the newest study supports their views.

We’re here to help. Here are some of the most important lessons we’re taking away from 2017, thanks to the researchers who do their best to separate fact from fiction. (The typical caveats apply: these are all subject to change based on new evidence, and each study has limitations.)

1. Teacher certification rules can have negative side effects.

There are two big ways that rules about who can and can’t teach cause problems. First, they disproportionately exclude teachers of color, who a bevy of recent studies have shown benefit students of color. High-stakes exams, GPA cutoffs, and traditional training requirements all hit would-be teachers of color the hardest, and there’s no clear solution.

Another downside of existing rules: they can make it hard for teachers to move to a new state. A recent study finds that although teachers are less likely to move between states than many other professionals, perhaps because of challenges in gaining a new license.

This can hurt students, particularly if effective teachers leave education as a result. And it may explain another new finding: that schools near state borders — and thus most affected by teachers unable to move between states — have lower student achievement.

2. Union protections may benefit students.

Teachers unions have long argued that by protecting teachers and bargaining for better pay, they ultimately help students. Research bolstered their case this year.

Most prominently, an analysis found that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s successful effort to dramatically scale back union power hurt student test scores. Another study, this one from California, showed that when charter schools unionize, students saw larger test score gains. That study wasn’t able to pinpoint why.

Two other studies — one from Louisiana, the other from Michigan — showed that removing tenure protections increased teacher turnover, at least in some schools. Past research has found that turnover usually harms students.

3. Students who stay in voucher programs longer do better.

As U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pushed private school vouchers into the limelight, critics have seized on recent studies showing that using public money to attend a private school can hurt student learning.

But analyses out of Indiana and Louisiana suggest that students who stick around in private school for three to four years see their scores bounce back after an initial drop. By year four, students in Indiana even made some gains in English. Still, many other students saw test scores drop because of the program, including those who left early and students in younger grades in Louisiana.

The disappointing test score results pushed voucher proponents to focus on their impact on other metrics, like high school graduation or college attendance. One study this year found that Florida students who used a tax-credit voucher were more likely to enroll in — though not necessarily complete — two-year college than similar students who attended public school.

4. State tests provide useful information about how schools affect students. Testing can also have unintended consequences.

One study focusing on charter high schools in Chicago showed that not only did those schools raise test scores substantially, they also helped send more kids to college and to stay there. That was also true of Chicago’s Noble charters, a high-profile network. Another piece of research from this year came to a similar conclusion: students who attended high schools in Michigan that raised students’ test scores also earned higher GPAs in college. At least in these contexts, tests were a meaningful gauge of school quality.

However, we also looked at a study showing that students were (slightly) less happy in the classrooms of teachers who were effective at raising test scores. This suggests that there are multiple dimensions to good teaching — and being good at one aspect doesn’t mean you’re good at others.

Finally, another study highlights the challenges of using tests to hold schools accountable: by focusing on test results starting only in third grade — the first year with federally mandated exams — schools are encouraged to place their weaker teachers in earliest grades. And many schools, at least in Miami, Florida, did just that.

5. We still don’t know much about how to turn around a struggling school.

This lesson may be the least surprising to policymakers. But as states try to help low-performing schools under the new federal education law, ESSA, they have a thin research base to draw from.

The highest-profile study on the topic came at the beginning of the year: a federal analysis of the Obama-era turnaround plan known as School Improvement Grants. It did not have any clear benefits — a finding DeVos has since touted to promote her own favored strategies.

But other studies from this year suggest that the effects of the federal improvement grants varied by place: They appear to have had a big impact in both Ohio and San Francisco, but not in Rhode Island.

New York City has also wrestled with this challenge. Early research has found that the city’s high-profile and expensive effort to help schools by offering wraparound services and other help had produced only mixed results.

Reading revisited

McQueen ends her Tennessee tenure the same way she started — focused on reading

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen reads to students during one of her classroom tours. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Education)

When then-newly appointed Education Commissioner Candice McQueen began touring Tennessee schools in 2015, she was “ashamed” of the dearth of strong reading materials available for many students and their teachers.

“Depending on what districts and classrooms you were in, some people had resources and curriculum and some did not,” recalls McQueen, a former classroom teacher and university dean of education.

The shortcoming was just one of several that helped explain Tennessee’s stagnant reading scores and why only one in three students was considered proficient in reading, based on national tests.

There also was a gap in how teachers or teacher candidates were being equipped to teach reading, a lack of attention to fostering reading skills in students’ early years, and little to no public education programming to address “summer slide,” the tendency for especially low-income students to regress in academic skills during their summer break from school.

McQueen has sought to address all of those weaknesses through various investments and supports under Read to be Ready, which was her first sweeping initiative under Gov. Bill Haslam.

Now, as she winds down her four-year tenure this month, the outgoing commissioner considers that work — launched in 2016 with the support of Haslam and his wife, Chrissy — among her most important legacies as education chief.

Last week, as a fitting bookend to her statewide leadership before starting her new job as CEO of a national education organization, McQueen put reading front and center during three days of regional gatherings of teachers and literacy coaches in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville.

“We’re just now beginning to see progress on TNReady,” she said of last year’s reading gains in grades 3-5 on the state’s standardized test.

“It’s progress we’re proud of, even though it’s not as much as we want,” she added.

Indeed, the climb ahead is steep, despite this year’s 2.3 percent increase to almost 37 percent of third-graders reading on or above grade level. To reach Tennessee’s lofty goal of 75 percent by 2025, the state will have to move 5 to 6 percent more third-graders to proficiency every year.

McQueen says reaching the goal is “absolutely doable” and cites the groundwork laid through Read to be Ready. Since 2016, Tennessee has launched a statewide coaching network for elementary reading teachers, offered new training for educators, and made investments in better resources for students. There are also new standards and expectations in teacher training and summer reading camps for first- through third-graders who are furthest behind.

McQueen is especially encouraged by summer camps that have shown statistically significant reading improvements for participating students during the past two years. She recently announced $8.9 million in state grants to 218 public schools to host even more camps next summer.

PHOTO: TDOE
Children participate in a 2016 summer reading program in Lauderdale County in West Tennessee as part of the new grant-based literacy program overseen by the Tennessee Department of Education.

As for the lack of high-quality textbooks and materials she first encountered in 2015, the state has identified texts that align with Tennessee’s new academic standards, and McQueen is urging districts to plan now to budget more for them.

“We’re building in this idea that you don’t just adopt; you purchase,” she told Chalkbeat. “Sometimes we see adoption where you have a set that all teachers are sharing. We feel like every teacher needs their own sets of books, their own curriculums, so they can adequately support all their students.”

Recognizing that strong reading skills are the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas, most Tennessee’s districts have embraced some or all parts of Read to be Ready. It’s popular as well with teachers, who say they like having both guidance and flexibility to help their students learn to decode letters and words, expand vocabularies, and deepen comprehension skills.

“This makes concrete resources available, but we’re also empowered to use our own teacher resources,” said Emily Townsend, who teaches kindergarteners in Coffee County.

Others are concerned that the focus on young children is coming at the expense of struggling middle and high school readers. “These are not throwaway kids,” said Stephanie Love, a board member for Shelby County Schools.

Love said the effects of poverty are also at play and require a deeper look at illiteracy in large cities like Memphis.

“I don’t think we need more initiatives; I think we need to reevaluate and see what’s preventing so many of our students from reading well,” said Love, a proponent of more state funding for schools. “Do they need glasses? Are they dyslexic? Did they not attend a pre-K or Head Start program?”

McQueen agrees that illiteracy is a “true equity issue.”

“Reading skills are a predictor of so many things across a lifetime,” she said of navigating school and jobs and avoiding crime and poverty. “We know that if you’re not reading proficiently by the third grade, you can still catch up, but it gets harder over time. Our passion for this work comes from what we know happens when kids are not reading.”

more money more learning

Does money matter for schools? Why one researcher says the question is ‘essentially settled’

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Educators wearing red and holding signs rally for more education funding at the Colorado Capitol on April 26, 2018.

“Throwing money at the problem” has long gotten a bad rap in education.

“The notion that spending more money is going to bring about different results is ill-placed and ill-advised,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said last year.

But a string of recent studies have undermined that perspective. Now, a new review of research drives another nail into the argument’s coffin.

The review looks closely at 13 studies focused on schools nationwide or in multiple states. Twelve found that spending more money meant statistically significant benefits for students, including rising test scores and high school graduation rates.

“By and large, the question of whether money matters is essentially settled,” Northwestern economist Kirabo Jackson concludes. “Researchers should now focus on understanding what kinds of spending increases matter the most.”

In the paper, which was released Monday through the National Bureau of Economic Research and has not been peer-reviewed, Jackson looks at attempts to pin down the effects of school spending. This is critical, because policymakers like DeVos often focus on correlations between spending and test scores.

The results of the 13 studies are remarkably consistent, even though they span different time periods.

For instance, students saw big gains in school districts where spending jumped between 1972 and 1990, one study found. A 10 percent increase in spending across a student’s 12 years in public school led students to complete an additional one-third of a year of school and boosted their adult wages by 7 percent. The gains were largest for low-income kids.

Studies of more recent changes tell a similarly encouraging story. States that increased school funding between 1990 and 2011 saw substantial gains on federal exams soon after, another analysis found.

A separate paper found that 12 percent increases in school spending boosted graduation rates by several percentage points

And another study found that cutting funding in the wake of the Great Recession hurt student test scores and graduation rates.

Jackson identifies just one national paper without clear positive effects.

“Money used wisely clearly matters,” said Lori Taylor, a Texas A&M school finance researcher  who praised Jackson’s study. “One of the takeaways from this newer literature might be that schools are more wise than we thought.”

Studies looking at single states have also found largely encouraging results. One recent study in New York took advantage of a quirk in the state’s funding formula that allowed certain districts with falling enrollment to get extra funding. Those extra dollars led to higher scores on state exams, it found.

Another New York study found that a 2 to 3 percent increase in funding led to a 0.5 to 0.8 percentage point decline in the high school dropout rate.

Head over to Ohio, and the results look similar: passing a funding ballot measure caused a boost in test scores. Three separate papers in Michigan, as well as a study in Massachusetts, found positive results, too. And Jackson’s overview may actually understate the evidence, as it does not include recent research in California and Texas, which also found gains from additional funding.

The only state study that showed unrestricted funding increases did not result in any improvements was a 2003 paper looking at Kentucky.

The pattern is consistent with other recent research overviews, but it’s a sharp departure from an older one by Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist who has frequently testified on behalf of states defending against lawsuits aimed at increasing school funding. His 1997 review looked at studies conducted before 1995, and found that only 27 percent of the results showed statistically gains from additional school spending.

Jackson argues that Hanushek’s review — which was vigorously challenged even at the time — is dated and relies on studies with crude methodologies.

Hanushek concedes that, but says his view on the matter is largely unchanged. The gains shown in the studies in Jackson’s paper differ in size, he said. And he noted a similar correlation to ones that DeVos cites: as spending has increased over the past several decades, scores on 12th grade federal tests have remained largely stagnant.

“The variation in the results that you get indicate quite clearly if I want to fix [a school district] and I just drop money on them, they may or may not get better,” Hanushek said. “It’s how the money is spent more than how much.”

Still, even Hanushek acknowledges there is a case for spending more money in schools.

“I think we’re underinvesting in education in the U.S. and I think it’s pretty serious,” he said. “But I don’t want to just do what we’ve done in the past and hope for something different.”

Jackson’s results are a bit murkier when examining state spending that is earmarked for specific uses. School construction spending, for example, led to gains in some cases but no clear effects in others. A trio of New York City studies found that federal Title I funds targeted at disadvantaged students did not have clear positive effects.

Jackson’s paper also does not review research on spending increases to pay for smaller class sizes, teacher salary increases, tutoring programs, or school turnaround efforts. A number of turnaround initiatives with big price tags have yielded disappointing results.

On balance, Taylor of Texas A&M says that the research points in a clear direction — though it still may not persuade skeptics.

“There were some circles that never bought the premise that money doesn’t matter,” she said. “There are other circles that will never accept the premise that money does matter.”